In the discotheque in Toby Young’s head, beyond the velvet rope is a VIP lounge full of Nazis, while the one in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is as deep as your love.
By Tim Concannon
One of the great joys of making a semi-regular radio show and podcast about films, film music, and what they mean, is the occasion of a happy accident. By misremembering details or giving voice to casual assumptions, when the conversation is edited afterwards – going back over notes, at least mentally – you sometimes find correspondences, overlaps, quantum superimpositions of meaning which you would not otherwise have noticed.
One such is at the end of the two ‘How to Lose Friends & Alienate People‘ Toby Young specials we made recently, where I mixed up two bridges to Manhattan from Brooklyn in two movies.
The final scene of ‘How To Lose Friends And Alienate People’ is filmed in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Furman Street, Brooklyn.
In ‘Saturday Night Fever’ Tony and Stephanie sit on a bench in John Paul Jones Park, 101 Street Shore Parkway, Brooklyn, facing Staten Island and overlooking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (of course), which foreshadows Bobby’s fall from the bridge at the end of the movie. The confusion stems from the previous shot to the one filmed in John Paul Jones Park being of the Brooklyn Bridge, Tony having driven Stephanie’s stuff over it to her new apartment.
The two Brooklyn parks overlooking bridges are 8 miles apart.
What Brooklyn bridges and the Lincoln tunnel symolised, relative to the Manhattan skyline (a ubiquitous emblem in the Eighties) had changed drastically between 1977 and 2007.
People’s sense of their limitations, the vistas of their life possibilities, the Overton window of aspiration inside people’s heads, shrank over thirty years.
In 1977, a lot of this was to do with someone’s ability to navigate other people’s emotional agendas. In ‘Saturday Night Fever’ the two Brooklyn bridges represented a way out. For Tony and Stephanie, the Brooklyn Bridge represented a permanent way out of a prescribed working class existence, the disco ‘2001 Odyssey’ being a temporary escape. The Verrazano–Narrows Bridge to Tony was a symbol of an escape to a suburban life on Staten Island, an escape less ambitious than Stephanie’s: leaving over the Brooklyn Bridge to share an apartment in Manhattan. For Bobby C, The Verrazano–Narrows Bridge was an escape from a marriage to his girl friend, who’s he’d made pregnant, and – ultimately – from life itself when he plunges to his death. In the film, the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge represents Tony’s desire to not be his parents, stuck in a paint store till he retires. The Brooklyn Bridge represents Stephanie’s dreams to escape working class life altogether.
The social mobility of the “bridge and tunnel crowd” in 1977 was limited by their ability to navigate new social mores, in geographical settings different from their home turf. ‘Disco’ emerged from loft parties hosted in midtown and lower Manhattan, mostly gay professionals mixing with Spanish-speaking kids from midtown, and with black kids from Harlem. By the time ‘Studio 54’ was established, the mystique and energy of a social scene that was based on New York’s bath house culture, blind to class and race, had yielded to a restrictive door policy intended to admit only people with the money to afford cocaine and Fiorucci suits, but sufficiently urbane to keep Truman Capote and Bianca Jagger entertained as well. This constant struggle at the door to admit only the “right” people is sent up with Whit Stillman’s usual acerbic eye for detail in his glorious ‘The Last Days of Disco‘. (“I do not have a gay mouth”).
Donald Trump used Studio 54 to do deals, and to attempt to buy into a more sophisticated social life than may otherwise have been open to a trust fund kid from Queens, who was acting as a front for the Mob in their property scams. “I never saw Donald Trump dance, though. He was a serious guy” Ian Schrager, Studio 54’s co-founder, told the Guardian.
Trump seems to have a lot of issues with women, haunted by a sense of personal failure despite his achievements. A far more intelligent, sensitive and self-aware man when he first became a celebrity than the rambling racist incumbent in the Whitehouse today, this analysis of Welles’s ‘Citizen Caine’ is fairly remarkable, not only for Trump’s insightful commentary on his own character flaws (summary: he can’t find a woman who loves him) but for how cogent, charming, funny and likable he is when the mask slips. One can only wonder where that small, trapped boy is most of the time, when the angry father in Donald Trump’s head has control over the world’s largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
By 2007, when ‘How To Lose Friends…’ was filmed, Brooklyn had become a graveyard of middle class ambitions as well as of working class ones, as the “starter” railroad apartment that Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale share in ‘The Last Days of Disco’, the crappy flats over kebab shops in the Toby Young film, became the only living spaces that junior editors on magazines and in publishing could hope to afford. (This was back when there were still publishing industries, plural. Yes, that long ago).
The escape in 2007 was into blogging, the pipe-dream that “personal branding” would get you over the velvet rope into an imagined VIP room. A new thing happening in 2007 was the popularistion of social media, tweet-ups, and – as digital projectors became cheaper – chancer arts promoters ‘curating’ old films in every brick archway, ornate graveyard, and on every roof top that they could muster an artistic response to.
The final scene of ‘How To Lose Friends…’ Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst reunited as Felini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ is projected in the park, is quite sweet but sort of sad too… in that by comparing this touching image with the similar one in ‘Saturday Night Fever’, you see how the glass ceiling has slammed down on college graduates’ heads as a result of cheap money flooding financial markets and deindustrialisation devaluing skills and craft. Immediately prior to the 2007 / 2008 financial crash, recreation in New York had become more about passive consumption than – as it had been in 1977 – about three kids with three chords, having a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, becoming a Jedi or a disco god or goddess at the apex of the Stargate in Kubrick’s ‘2001’.
Toby Young also seems to have his own unresolved anger, and issues with women. The film papers over this by taking Young’s much darker book and ‘repurposing’ it (another popular activity in ‘vintage’-crazed 2007) as a sort of Paul Rudd romcom version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ but with Simon Pegg in. (‘The Devil Wears Primark’?) However, in a film that’s both Rudd-less and rudderless, this sweet side to the character based on Young is oddly miscued. He’s given a back story about his mum having been an actress in lovely old black and white films in the olden days, which explains why he’s nice to a seasoned woman film actor, quotes Rilke, and digs Nino Rota’s film scores.
Toby Young’s mum Sasha Moorsom was a very interesting and talented woman (she translated Ionesco plays…) but slightly more complex than the frustrated novelist who Pegg’s character is pointlessly rude to in a bar on first arriving in New York. Then – Pegg having got the relationship he was chasing after with coke-enthusiast celeb Megan Fox in her bra and pants, only to fall out over his mother’s wedding ring – he realises that (don’t you just know it?) he was in love with Kirsten Dunst’s aspiring novelist character all along… In other words, with a female character who’s only agency and purpose in the story is to affirm the life decisions of the male protagonist.
Young’s capacity for self-sabotage is exceeded only by an incessant impulse for his public meltdowns to act as some kind of therapy, and as material for his interminable columns in ‘The Spectator’. “Getting a job at Vanity Fair was an act of adolescent rebellion. It was my way of dealing with the inevitable guilt. It was almost as though there was a person inside me acting on parents’ wishes by effectively stopping me from getting anywhere in this wretched world” he told the Evening Standard in 2008, when the film came out. Producer Stephen Woolley barred him from the set of a film based on Young’s book and real life.
Perhaps if I had been given a chance to get to know [Kirsten Dunst] beforehand she would have been a little more tolerant. I blame Stephen Woolley, one of the film’s producers, for thwarting my efforts in this regard. He took me along to the premier of Spiderman 3 last year and, because I was with him, I managed to get into the VIP section at the party afterwards [he didn’t need a pig this time]. At the time, Kirsten was going out with Johnny Borrell, the lead singer of Razorlight, and towards the end of the evening I found myself talking to the band’s drummer. We were in mid-conversation when a man I can only describe as Razorlight’s ‘entourage wrangler’ approached and gave us the secret number to call in order to be admitted to the pub in Camden where Johnny, Kirsten and co were heading for an all-night drinking session.
‘See you later,’ I said to Stephen Woolley. ‘I’m off to get pissed with a bunch of celebrities.’
‘No you’re not,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? I’ve been waiting all my life for this. I’m finally going to be admitted to the inner sanctum.’
‘There’s no way I’m letting you loose in that environment. I haven’t concluded negotiations with Kirsten yet. One wrong word from you could torpedo the whole deal.’
Needless to say, Young got a column out of these moments musicaux, too.
By contrast, the end of ‘Saturday Night fever’ involves Tony realising that his best way out of a dreary life in Brooklyn may be to develop a relationship with Stephanie as a friend, a comrade, a mentor. The closing moments of the film are incredibly moving and tender, as Tony finds a solidarity with Stephanie that goes beyond reducing her to a potential mother, lover, girl friend or wife, to their relationship being a kind of sisterhood, an empathy in their shared moment which transcends any easy definition.
It’s one of the perfect “show don’t tell” closing scenes in cinema. The Bee Gees sing as the credits roll, as though the question is posed not only to the two main characters but also to us, ‘how deep is your love?’ The answer is: we can see it on the screen.
One of the finest, most richly intertextual dramas of the Seventies, and one of the most important films ever made, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is a masterpiece that will last forever. In its heartfelt humanity it has, in many respects, yet to be surpassed in popular cinema.
If only the same could be said of Stallone’s sequel ‘Staying Alive’. Effectively a long show reel for Sly’s brother Frank’s Michael McDonald musical ambitions, it should be pretty good (Sly and Travolta, ferchissake). Yet it undoes everything ‘Saturday Night Fever’ set up, reducing Tony to a Bob Fosse, pelvically-writhing, Jane Fonda’s workout, ugly knit-wearing, patchouli-oiled Pan, flexing and pirouetting his way through every lazy 1980 cliché to hand.
In the course of writing this post, I watched it again after a long hiatus. I’m unmoved to write any more about this movie than: it sucks, don’t waste your time. Perhaps the only interesting moment is at the very end, where Tony “struts” away from the theatre, having killed it with his chance of a lifetime: the lead role in a sexually weird power rock choreographed version of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ (or something). It’s an interesting shot because it’s the closing of the movie, the sequel to Travolta’s career-defining role, yet it somehow regresses Travolta to his ‘urban cowboy’ phase, and also – given that this is happening off-Broadway somewhere – to ‘Midnight Cowboy’. The throwaway ending underscores how Stallone – who you may not care for, but who is a serious film-maker (‘Rocky’!) – wearily went through the motions of what should have been an epic synergy between the cultural force of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ updated by three years with Sly’s sleek and muscular directing.
If you want to see a film which crystalises New York in 1980, don’t watch ‘Staying Alive’ – even the Bee Gees tracks sound audibly phoned-in, in places – watch ‘Times Square‘.